ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Laurent Gbagbo clung to power on Wednesday as West African leaders conferred on what to do next after he rebuffed their ultimatum to step down or face military intervention.
The presidents of Sierra Leone, Benin and Cape Verde were to brief Nigeria's president later Wednesday in Abuja, Nigeria, after they left Ivory Coast without Gbagbo, whom they had hoped to accompany into exile.
Nigeria is the most powerful member of the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS, which has vowed to use "legitimate force" if Gbagbo does not relinquish power.
The military option apparently remained on the table for ECOWAS, which has sent combat troops to at least three African states over the past two decades.
A big pro-Gbagbo demonstration planned for Wednesday was postponed to give leaders a chance to negotiate. Gbagbo's minister of youth and employment, Charles Ble Goude, who remains under U.N. sanctions for inciting violence against foreigners and the U.N., had called for the mass gathering but canceled it. In a statement on state television Tuesday, he said he wanted to "give diplomacy a chance."
Tensions have escalated in Ivory Coast, the world's main cocoa producer. A crowd in a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood on Tuesday surrounded a small U.N. convoy and wounded a peacekeeper with a machete, the U.N. said. Gbagbo has ordered peacekeepers out but the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast said after the attack that it "reiterates its determination to pursue its work in the service of the Ivorian people."
The United Nations declared Gbagbo the loser of the presidential runoff vote held on Nov. 28. The U.N., which was tasked with certifying the results of the election, the United States and other world powers have insisted Gbagbo hand over power to internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara.
Gbagbo, however, points to the Ivory Coast constitutional council that said he was the winner. The council, which is led by a Gbagbo ally, made that announcement after throwing out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north, saying violence and intimidation directed at Gbagbo supporters meant results from those areas should be invalidated. The top U.N. envoy in Ivory Coast has disputed that assessment.
The regional delegation led by presidents from Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin met separately with Gbagbo and Ouattara, then met Gbagbo a second time late Tuesday before leaving the country without issuing a statement.
Gbagbo still maintains control of Ivory Coast's military and security forces. Some analysts feel an ECOWAS mission in Ivory Coast would entail a full-scale invasion, causing numerous civilian casualties.
Postelection violence already has left at least 173 people dead, according to the United Nations. The U.N. said it has been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on U.N. personnel movements.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and has already overstayed his mandate by five years because the election was repeatedly delayed until October, with the runoff coming last month. The election was meant to help reunify a country that was divided by a 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south, but Ivory Coast now stands again at the brink of war.
The regional leaders had hoped to persuade Gbagbo to leave Ivory Coast with them after their one-day mission, saying he would be offered asylum in neighboring countries.
The French government says its forces in this former French colony will protect French citizens but won't be making any decisions about an international military intervention.
Late Tuesday, Gbagbo's allies lashed out on state television at nations that have recognized Ouattara's representatives as Ivorian ambassadors. In a statement, Gbagbo's camp said it reserves the right to oust ambassadors of countries that recognize Ouattara's envoys.
The French Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the European Union last week agreed that "only ambassadors named by President Ouattara will be recognized by the European Union and the member states."
France is in the process of confirming a new ambassador to Paris named by Ouattara, spokesman Bernard Valero said without naming the person designated for the job.
The regional bloc ECOWAS is comprised of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
Associated Press Writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.